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Rahul all ears in Odisha, bonds with grassroots

Cuttack, Feb. 19: On the second day of his two-day visit to Odisha, Rahul Gandhi took forward his agenda of grass-roots bonding that he had emphasised on becoming All India Congress Committee vice-president at the party’s Jaipur conclave last month.

Eager to give voice to party functionaries at the grass-roots level and assess the organisational strength of the Congress in the state, Rahul today interacted with district, block and panchayat level leaders at Cuttack in batches. Party sources said Rahul was trying to bridge the gap between the leadership and the grass-roots workers.

“He wanted to know why the organisation is so weak in Odisha,” said Dhenkanal district Congress committee president Nabin Chandra Narayan Das after a session with the party vice-president.

“Rahulji emphasised the importance of the voice of grass-roots level party functionaries. He said unless they have a voice in the organisation, the party’s voice cannot reach the people,” said Helena Bage, president of Jamda Block, after the meeting.

“He tried to find out whether selection of candidates for the 2009 elections had been done in consultation with district and block presidents of the party,” said Helena, who is also only block president owing allegiance to Congress from Mayurbhanj district.

“He wanted party men to make people aware of different Centre-sponsored welfare schemes and development programmes being run in Odisha. He sought to know whether party activists were informing people about these initiatives,” said Narmada Dalei, panchayat samiti member from Depaguda in Gajapati district, after a session with the Congress vice-president.

“The interactions were a bid to feel the pulse of the party at the grass-roots level and take necessary corrective measures to strengthen the party,” said Cuttack district Congress committee president Prakash Behera. He expressed the hope that Rahul would be able to orchestrate a turnaround in Congress prospects in the state.

The focus during Rahul’s interactions with leaders, party office-bearers and elected representatives from 16 organisational districts was on gearing up the party for the polls as the Congress has lost in the last three Assembly elections in Odisha. In 2009, Congress had won only four of the 90 seats in these districts.

As Rahul interacted with party leaders, a tight security net was thrown around the venue and the media was not allowed access to the ongoing sessions. Apart from district and block level office-bearers of the party, its women, youth and student wings, Rahul also met panchayat and block level representatives of local bodies owing allegiance to the Congress.

“Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Odisha at this stage is significant as his focus is on strengthening the party organisation at the grass-roots level,” said Congress MP and Union minister for fertilizers and chemicals Srikant Jena.

The Congress, which has been out of power in Odisha since 2000, is pinning hope on Rahul to improve the party’s poll prospects. “The interactions will lead to a new era in Odisha,” said Jena while addressing a session with elected representatives of local bodies.

The interactions had apparently brought to the fore complaints of infighting in the party and formation of power groups. Rahul wanted party leaders to rejuvenate the Congress as a cohesive force in Odisha. At the session with elected representatives of local bodies, Rahul said senior leaders involved in power struggle should sort out their differences or other ways would be adopted.

“Indiscipline will not be tolerated. Action will be taken,” the Congress vice-president told mediapersons after the interactive sessions.

Dharmananda Patra, corporator of Cuttack Municipal Corporation, said: “Rahulji’s visit is expected to ensure that party leaders bury their differences and give a united effort to involve grass-roots activists in organisational matters.”.

Pulak Mohanty, vice-president of Keonjhar district Congress committee, said: “Decision on party tickets needs to be taken at least six months before the election to give sufficient time to the candidates, especially first-timers, to reach the people.”